Afterwords: Reflections on losing a child to mental illness and drugs

PicMonkey Collage©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart   1600 words

I do not know if I should be attempting this again—don’t know if it’s wise or useful to attempt honesty, especially in prose, on a matter so profoundly life-altering as the death of a child. I have tried many times, sometimes in short memorial pieces, mostly in laboring poetry, to come to terms with my adult son’s death from mental illness and drug abuse in 2013. So why try again? After all, Dillon’s isn’t a new or even infrequently told story.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose deaths, a 137 percent increase since 2000—including a 200 percent increase in deaths involving opioids. Contributing to these sobering statistics is the fact that nearly 50 percent of those who suffer from mental illness also have substance abuse problems.

My son was one in tens-of-thousands. Maybe even millions.

Dillon was schizophrenic and a chronic self-medicator—his drugs of choice, alcohol and opioids. Often in combination. By the time of his death, Dillon had a long tally of counseling, rehab, recovery, and relapse on account. He had also in late adolescence paid dearly in psychological terms during the dissolution of his parents’ twenty-year marriage, a bond broken owing to his father’s inability—that would be my inability—to deny and suppress a long latent homosexuality.

The bill for all of these troubles came due for Dillon, as I’ve indicated, in 2013. In the early hours of July 28th, Dill overdosed.

Stripped clean of identification, money, and most of his personal possessions in a Seattle park frequented by drug dealers, the homeless, and the mentally ill, Dillon lay unconscious and unattended for nearly half an hour. By the time emergency crews arrived, most of Dillon’s brain activity had ceased. He was admitted to Harbor View Hospital under the alias, “Joe Garcia.” Two days passed before a staff member recognized Dillon from a previous stay (one of several) in the hospital’s psych ward.

His mother, my ex-wife, and I were subsequently notified; we flew in from out-of-state to join our daughter, with whom Dillon had been living, to sit vigil at Dill’s bedside. The end came a day later.

Removed from life support, Dillon passed in the early hours of August 2, 2013. He was thirty-four years old. It was the worst day of my life—or so I thought at the time.

What I’ve learned since is that there is no such thing as a single worst day. Not for a parent who has lost a child; and certainly not when the child’s mental illness has introduced a whole world of “if only’s” and “why didn’t I’s” into the grief-guilt-anger-personal-culpability aftermath. Indeed, what I’ve discovered is that the bad days just keep coming, cropping up on the slightest provocation: a dream, an old photograph, one of Dill’s favorite tunes on the radio; the sight of another man at lunch with his son. Any one of a thousand ordinary everyday events can overwhelm this benighted father in a tsunami-like wave of fresh grief. It is two and a half years since Dillon’s passing, and still the tidal waves of regret and guilt keep coming.

I use the word guilt on purpose, because that is what I feel—as if I could have and should have done more to save my son. Something more than arranging for therapy or supplying occasional supplementary funds; more meaningful than editing his resumé or helping him find affordable housing. Couldn’t I have undertaken something more hands-on than long-distance telephone pep-rallies, something more stabilizing and/or interventional than an Internet search for appropriate services? And most acutely: couldn’t I have denied myself, delayed my ‘coming out’ for my children’s sake, remained closeted and heterosexually coupled in the service of their emotional and psychological health at least a while longer?

Even barring that possibility, shouldn’t I have taken Dillon under my roof once I’d forged out on my own to build a new life? Perhaps even taken control of his mental health treatment by legal means?

Over and over, my daily reflections remind me that I chose not to do these things, chose not to pull my son closer.

So, why didn’t I? It’s not as if the options weren’t clear to me.

I remember, for example, a long distance telephone conversation with a representative at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Greater Seattle, shortly after Dillon moved there to join his sister in 2009. Already my daughter was reporting a resurgence of Dillon’s old patterns: the precipitous ups-and-downs, the recalcitrance about his meds, the bouts of paranoia accompanied by self-destructive behaviors with alcohol and drugs. I remember discussing with the NAMI representative the various services, treatments, and support systems available to Dill in Seattle if he could only be persuaded to access them. And I remember that we explored intervention options too—the various legal complications and difficulties associated with attempting to gain guardianship of my son and/or effect his involuntary commitment. I remember (tellingly?) experiencing a feeling close to relief when I learned that since Dillon had several times demonstrated enough self-awareness of his illness to pursue voluntary commitment programs, it might prove difficult to establish the preponderance of evidence necessary to gain control over my son’s mental health care via the courts. Even so, the NAMI representative provided me with information and legal contacts for exploring a court action. But as I’ve indicated, I didn’t pursue that route.

Instead, I convinced myself that the least traumatic, least shaming course of action for Dillon was to encourage him to be proactive in maintaining his mental health—i.e., staying on his meds, continuing regular sessions with his psychiatrist, and even pursuing voluntary commitment treatments when necessary.

For my part, I would provide advice and financial assistance to supplement Dill’s disability income; I would do my best to smooth over his legal and housing difficulties via long distance. And I would keep reminding him that the voices that sometimes commandeered his consciousness weren’t real, weren’t the result of a sinister N.S.A. experiment designed to beam self-destructive commands at him via microwave.

It was easier to pursue this route—easier because Dill sometimes experienced several weeks of normalcy at a stretch—no dramas, nothing more bothersome than the housekeeping challenges his messy ways occasioned for his fastidious sister and housemate.

But the rationale for my choices was not entirely rooted in parental altruism or even the belief that a milder form of tough love might do Dillon good—not that those didn’t factor into my actions. Rather, the naked Full Monte of my reasoning included much that was not admirable.

Seventeen years of running damage control in close quarters during Dillon’s youth, I thought, was enough. I wanted my own new life as a homosexual man to be as uncluttered as possible. And besides, Dillon had repeatedly proven himself a bridge burner, disappointing us all—his mother, sister, myself—multiple times. How much dishonesty, verbal abuse, and even theft was one expected to endure? Hadn’t I put in my time? So when my adult son forged out into his own space, I was determined to keep him there—at a distance. I was able to pull this off by compartmentalizing in a backroom of consciousness (well away from the shaming light of day) the less commendable reasons for my actions.

But as the saying goes, you can be sure the truth will out. And in the aftermath of Dill’s passing, with all my emotional doors flung wide open, the truth has been stepping into the klieg lights, strutting its ugly self in a manner guaranteed to commandeer my attention, my regret. And my guilt.

There are reasons, I know, that should mitigate these feelings, this shame. After all, one of the tenets of supporting a family member who suffers from mental illness and/or substance abuse is not to do for them what they can do for themselves. And certainly not to intervene in their lives in a manner that keeps them from the consequences of their actions.

These are pretty words, and not untrue. But they are afterwords now, and their comfort has been icy cold in the aftermath of Dillon’s death.

More helpful has been support from my spouse, my loved ones.

As a dear friend recently counseled,  I must discover how to forgive myself, forgive Dillon, and forgive the universe for casting us both in this drama. And then maybe make something good happen in my son’s memory. Which is, I suppose what I’m attempting here—the ostensible purpose of this post.

That I’m finding it beyond difficult, is, I expect patently obvious.

But I am trying.

One of the things that makes the process so difficult is that while there’s no denying my parental shortcomings and insensitivities, I really do love my children; I have always loved them. That was the one thing I wanted them never to doubt. So I told them so at every opportunity: “I love you bushels and pecks,” I told them when they were children. And then later on, “Whatever happens, wherever you go and whatever you do, I love you today, tomorrow, and for always.”

I thought that knowing how deeply and unconditionally they were loved would help my children weather any challenge. How naïve of me not to have foreseen that discovering otherwise would break all our hearts. Especially Dillon’s, whose wounded psyche was so fragile.

“I love you both to death,” I told my children repeatedly.

But I always meant my death.

Atoning for that failure with Dillon will be, I suspect, a lifelong challenge.


About jaurquhart

Jack Andrew Urquhart was born in the American South. Following undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Gainesville, he taught in Florida's public schools. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared online at Clapboard House Literary Journal, Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. He is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories and the short story, They Say You Can Stop Yourself Breathing. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Mr. Urquhart was, until 2010, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in Washington State.
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6 Responses to Afterwords: Reflections on losing a child to mental illness and drugs

  1. rlboyington says:

    Dear Jack, from the very first day that we met there was, and remains, absolutely no doubt of your love for your children. Your love and profound care was there for all to see and to know.

  2. evacaye says:

    Heart-rending post. I don’t have the drug addictions Dillon had, but now I’m determined to get back on track so my parents never say the same about me.

    • jaurquhart says:

      Thank you, Eva. My son had several friends with mental health issues–some of them as serious as Dill’s, others less so. I like to think that sharing Dillon’s story may help some of them; I will be very happy, of course, if his story helps make a difference for you. I wish you good fortune and good health.–Jack

  3. karenwojcikberner says:

    It’s good to see you writing again, Jack. It always helps me wrestle with my demons, too. I truly hope you find peace some day.

  4. “I think that resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had, the reality that you liked before.”

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